In 2002, the American Gem Trade Association added Tanzanite to Zircon and Turquoise as the December birthstones. It had been 90 years since any change had been made to the modern birthstone lineup. This aptly illustrates how such traditions as assigning gems to birth months, and also to the signs of the zodiac, is in part a matter of human creativity.
Of course, there is absolutely nothing wrong with this. Most traditions are rich with creative inspiration and purpose. It is the repetition of an action or behavior that makes the tradition. This, in turn, leads to strong meaning that marks entire cultures and their individuals. Traditions, in this sense, can serve as milestones. And this brings us back to birthstones.
Historians believe that 18th century Jewish gem traders may be responsible for the commercialization of birthstones, which they first introduced to Poland. However, they assign the original inspiration for birthstones to the first High Priest of Israel, Aaron, brother of Moses.
Indeed, in his time (1393-1273 BC), men of his profession wore a garment known as a ceremonial breastplate. This was adorned with four rows of three precious stones believed to represent the 12 tribes. The following excerpt from Exodus 28:17-20 is thought to be the most accurate account of the true significance of the breastplate gems: “There were twelve stones, one for each of the names of the sons of Israel, each engraved like a seal with the name of one of the twelve tribes.”
Some assume these also represented the 12 months of the year, as well as the twelve signs of the zodiac, but this is doubtful since the calendar of the era did not measure time as our current calendar, which dates from 1582. Likewise, the gems adorning a high priest’s breastplate did not have the individual names assigned to them today. Instead, they were named according to their place of origin.
In the Western world, the first list of 12 birthstones was assembled in 1912, by the American National Association of Jewelers, in response to a well-known trend that took roots with the aforementioned 18th century traders. This, in spite of the fact that the Ayurvedic tradition had assigned specific gems to birth months as far back as 1500 BC.
Traditionally, it was believed that a person’s birthstone enhanced physical health, as well as mental ability and overall disposition. In other words, while today we may assign characteristics to a person born on a certain month and under a specific zodiac sign, originally a birthstone served as an agent, so to speak, to assist one in finding strength to face the challenges of their time. It was an empowering object.
While we may not think of birthstones quite in these terms anymore, we nevertheless maintain our faith in the attributes they represent, and this is precisely why we continue to value these gems, perhaps more than any other. They say so much about who we are.